I’m beginning to feel as though I’ve got an imaginary friend. I talk about him all the time, and require my friends and family to listen. I talk to him, although he never replies, and I don’t expect him to. I find him entirely fascinating, and am convinced that he’s uncommonly beautiful and talented, even though I’ve never actually set eyes on him. He has a name; but he didn’t tell me it, I just made it up.
I refer, of course, to my unborn child.
My burgeoning relationship with him has something in common with my relationship with my cat. “She thinks such-and-such,” I say, even though what my cat thinks is one of the great Known Unknowns of my life. Therefore, I feel as though I’m actually being anthropomorphic in the way I talk about my son – even though, if the scans are to be believed, he is quite literally human-shaped.
This, of course, is the way it’s got to be. If parents didn’t talk to their babies as if they could understand, none of us would ever learn to talk. If we weren’t obsessed by them and willing to cater for their every need, the human race would very quickly come to an end. (Which Gaia, beset as she is by her infestation, might deem a Good Thing, but my Selfish Genes wouldn’t agree. See? Anthropomorphism – a game everyone can play.)
I think the pre-birth construction of an imagined relationship is, actually, specific to mothers – in its intensity, at least. It’s the instinctive desire to be close to one’s children. Perhaps it’s partly due to the physical reality of having a small being booting you in the guts every now and then; some fairly intense psychological resetting is necessary in order to make you happy about that.
“Happy Fathers’ Day!” I said to Baby’s Daddy a couple of weekends ago.
“Jumping the gun a bit, aren’t you?” he said.
“You mean the paternity test hasn’t come through yet?” said his brother.
But I knew what I meant, and what he meant, and with a seven-month bump you aren’t a mother-to-be, not really. You’re a mother already. You just don’t quite know who your child is.
In Nick Hornby’s “A Long Way Down”, one of the protagonists has a profoundly disabled son who has no ability to communicate. She invents a character for him – desires, personality, preferences in sports and music – and decorates his bedroom according to what that imagined character would want.
Question is, do we all do that? And doesn’t it hurt when children don’t turn out to be as we imagine them, even if there’s nothing actually wrong with the way they are? After all, we hate to have to change what we think. The cliché of the child who doesn’t meet his parents’ expectations is so embedded in our culture that decades ago Monty Python satirised it by imagining the Working Class Playwright whose son appals him by going into mining. Sometimes, the mismatch between the real and imagined reality is so great that parents have only got two ways out of it. Either they can reject the reality of their parenthood – throwing the child out of the house with the traditional dismissal, “You’re no son of mine!” or, more commonly, refusing to believe the reality of the way the child has turned out – becoming another cliché, the mother of an unremarkable man who thinks her son is a genius.
But maybe it isn’t generally that way. Much as we like stasis, we expect our children to change. Therefore we ought to be able to deal with a gradual transition in terms of how we see them, from the imagined, in-utero version, to, hopefully, something more grounded in reality. Since babies are, after all, genuine people, I suppose they can’t help but to start to think and act for themselves. And that ought to be a good thing for us.
Perhaps, every time they reject a carefully-chosen toy in favour of a paper bag, or start to beam and nod their little heads in time to “Nights in White Satin” (insert your least favourite musical offering here) our children are actually helping us to come to terms, bit by bit, with the world being the way it is, and not the way we’d like it to be.